Just in case you don’t remember from the last article in this series, the terms “social anxiety disorder” and “social phobia” can be used interchangeably. Both are generally defined as a fear of being negatively evaluated by other people, especially in social situations.
Current evidence on social anxiety seems to indicate that it is mainly the affected person’s perception and thoughts which make the disorder so crippling. The previous article on the topic showed us that people with high social anxiety are very prone to worrying excessively about how they will perform in future social situations. They are also highly preoccupied with thoughts of past social “failures” and negative memories of social interaction.
An Australian study by Wong and Moulds (“Impact of anticipatory processing versus distraction on multiple indices of anxiety in socially anxious individuals”) provides us with further information of reactions to a social situation that are considered stressful by most people, whether they are highly socially anxious or not. In this particular study, the stressful social situation was a speech to be given in front of an audience.
The researchers measured the level of anxiety in the participants by using a self-report scale, taking note of their physical state, observing their behavior, and questioning them on a variety of personal thought patterns and beliefs about their social ability.
The participants in the study, who were college undergraduates, were separated into two groups: “high socially anxious” and “low socially anxious.” They were also randomly assigned to either focus on thinking about a stressful social situation at length or to think of something unrelated.
It was found that in the highly anxious and less highly anxious groups, having to ruminate on a stressful social situation had negative effects. The people in the study who had time to anticipate an unpleasant social challenge for a period of time performed worse on a speech task. They also showed more signs of physiological distress.
These findings indicate that socially anxious individuals may do poorly in social situations because they often engage in “anticipatory processing” (obsessively thinking about a social situation before it occurs). In short, people who have social anxiety make themselves more uncomfortable in a social setting by worrying about it beforehand. This supports the findings of the Greek study discussed in the previous article.
If you or a loved one suffer from social anxiety, you should know that there are trained mental health professionals who can help you overcome your fear. Research some licensed therapists in your area to find out what kinds of treatments are available.